The wild and alluring island of Sumba is coming onto the radar as more eco-conscious resorts open their doors.
Dappled mid-afternoon light filters through the low grassy overhang and settles onto the bamboo floor just beyond me. It's hot outside - uncomfortably humid, as Indonesian days so often are - but here on the wide veranda, a breeze wraps around us and the air is cooler. An old man with weathered skin and cataract eyes sits on the step that rises into the body of the house and beside him, leaning against a waist-high bamboo wall, three women have gathered. They welcome me with smiles and nods, and their red beetle-nut-stained mouths erupt with laughter when I return the greeting in Kodi, their language. Would I like a coconut, one woman asks via Yakob, my guide - penhen, hello, is the only Kodi word I've picked up so far - and she sends the youngest woman off to fetch some.
Yakobus Pati Mone works on the experiences team at Cap Karoso; we've spent the day exploring the area that surrounds the luxurious new resort, and we're now in a small, traditional village in dry South-west Sumba. Almost 900 kilometres north of Western Australia, Sumba is a wild, alluring island. Its topography is dramatic: this is an island of rugged terrain and rolling hills, and stark limestone cliffs that plummet into an ocean of vivid turquoise waters. Here, pockets of dense forests meet semi-arid sweeps of savannah, and the ragged coastline is pock-marked with white-sand beaches and crystal-water bays.
It's among Indonesia's poorest islands - access to running water, education and health services is severely lacking - but Sumba is rich in culture and heritage. Although Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country Christianity is officially the dominant religion on Sumba, but it's the traditional beliefs of the Marapu religion (the worship of ancestors, the spirits of the land and a god whose name cannot be mentioned) that govern so much of life here.
Sumba's traditional villages are windows into a culture that is deeply rooted in the spirit world, and perhaps the most striking feature are the bamboo houses that, like the one I'm in now, have steep-pitched roofs stretching up to the sky, connecting this world with that of the ancestors. They're thatched with the hardy alang grass that grows in abundance on the island and are fronted, almost always, by enormous tombs comprised of hand-cut stones that can weigh as much as 70 tonnes each.
"There are three levels to every house," Yakob explains as a woman chops open the coconuts. "This house is on stilts so there's the ground level, which is where animals are kept; then there's the level we're on, for humans, and up there," Yakob nods towards the peak of the roof, "that's where we store rice and keep special religious objects."
Coconuts are passed around and as I try to drink directly from the husk as Yakob explains more about the structure of the houses, traditions and daily life here. He tells me about ikat, the complex style of weaving that Sumbanese women are revered for, and Pasola, the annual festival where horseback battles honour the ancestral spirits, and during which blood must be spilled to benefit the rice harvest. "The Pasola is a display of our men's daring equestrian skills," Yakob says proudly. "It's a spectacle that draws visitors from across the world."
Back in the late 1980s, when the founders of Nihiwatu (now Nihi Sumba) began to build what was then a humble hotel at an idyllic surf spot, the island was almost completely off the world's radar. It remained that way for decades, but in recent years more and more hotels have opened as Sumba's reputation has grown among curious travellers who're searching for wild waves, peaceful locations and privacy. The island has also begun to emerge as a luxury destination - in a twist of irony, as so many people here live below the poverty line - and some guests pay upward of $2500 a night to stay in exquisitely comfortable villas that leave them wanting for nothing.
Many of Sumba's hotels are firmly committed to operating sustainably. On a dry island where resources are scarce, investing in renewable energy, minimising water consumption and managing waste responsibly are a necessity. It's easier - and cheaper - to grow produce locally than to ship it in, which means the local economy benefits as Sumbanese producers step into the supply chain, and as people from nearby communities are hired to work as hotel staff, drivers and guides. Many hotels have committed to supporting communities, too. The Sumba Foundation, intricately connected with Nihi, has been instrumental in changing the lives of the Sumbanese people by running programs to eradicate malaria, establish clinics, sink boreholes, provide balanced meals to schoolchildren and to run English programs, too.
The afternoon is hot and even the dogs and chickens are lethargic. My mind wanders back to the small underground "cave lake" we visited earlier. Its cool waters were crystal clear, and I regret now not plunging in. "Are you ready?" Yacob's voice interrupts my musing. "Shall we look around the village?" And in that moment I realise: Sumba's allure lies not just in the moments we experience, but also in the anticipation of what is yet to come. In Sumba, adventure is almost always just around the corner.
Eco-conscious hotels in Sumba
1. Maringi Sumba offers an inspirational introduction to the island. It is staffed by students of the Sumba Hospitality Foundation, who are keen to share details of their island with visitors. maringi-sumba.com
2. Cap Karoso is one of the island's newest hotels. It's a very modern resort that highlights Sumbanese culture and has a focus on food. capkaroso.com
3. Ngalung Kalla was created by the ocean-loving couple who live on the property. It's an off-grid, down-to-earth surf "resort" with exceptional ocean views. ngalungkalla.com
4. Nihi Sumba is regularly voted one of the top hotels on the planet. Sumptuous private villas have their own pools and views across a pristine bay. nihi.com
5. Alamayah is a luxury boutique retreat with only six suites, carefully designed and exceptionally beautiful. alamayah.com
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Getting there: Wings Air and Citilink flights from Bali to Tambaloka are 90 minutes' long, while Nam Air flights are 60 minutes.
Need to know: Sumba comprises four regencies. South-west Sumba and West Sumba are the most developed in terms of tourism, and are served by Tambaloka airport. Transport infrastructure in East Sumba and Central Sumba is less developed; Waingapu is the largest town on the island and its airport is the entry point for East Sumba. Phone coverage is not great, so if you're travelling between towns, make sure you have offline maps available.
Getting around: Hotels will arrange transport for their guests (usually at an additional charge). For details on how to get around if travelling independently, see sumba-information.com.
The writer was a guest of Cap Karoso, Nihi and Ngallung Kala hotels.
Pictures: Getty Images; Unsplash